Chocolate: The Exhibition

Chocolate: The Exhibition, is showing now until January 2 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. While visiting family in Minneapolis, I was able to visit this exhibit, on loan from the Field Museum in Chicago. This is a very well assembled presentation, both educational and entertaining. It begins with the history of cocao, starting with its Aztec origins, follows chocolate’s introduction to Europe by the Spaniards, explains its connection with the slave trade, and ends with a well detailed display of commercial chocolate candy production.

Chocolate making tools, historical and modern, are on display. I smiled to see a molinillo, almost identical to the two I brought from Mexico as gifts. This ancient tool, used for hundreds of years to foam hot chocolate, is still widely used in Mexico today. The molinillo on display is labeled a “stirrer”, which I think is a misnomer. When using a molinillo, a whisking action, not a stirring action, is employed to create foam and bubbles.

Two more molinillos are in the case pictured below, with the deep, clay pots used for foaming chocolate drinks. Molinillos, hand carved with their jangly rings from a single piece of wood, are still sold in Mexican markets and even in some modern supermercados.

I thought I already knew a lot about chocolate, but I was surprised to learn about its connection to slavery. The Aztecs had yet to discover sugar and drank their chocolate bitter, seasoned with chiles and other spices, but the Europeans added sugar and the new drink became a favorite.  As this new taste swept through Europe, a great demand for cocao beans and cane sugar grew. The dark side to this story is that a huge pool of slave labor was required to supply Europe with chocolate and sugar. Ironically, the first people pressed into slavery to harvest great quantities of cocao beans and sugar cane were Mesoamericans, who labored from the early 16th. until the late 18th. century to supply European demand.

I regret including such a negative note about one of my favorite foods, but I would be amiss to ignore the fact that much of today’s chocolate is still produced from cocao beans harvested by children, literally working as slaves. This is a dirty secret of the chocolate industry, one swept under the rug as profits trump ethics. Buy chocolate labeled “Fair Trade” to insure you are not participating in a commerce that exploits slave workers. To see a list of companies producing fair trade and organic chocolate, and to learn more about exploitation of cocao workers, read Stop Chocolate Slavery.

(Update: For more on this topic, see my more recent article , Chocolate, Slavery and our Collective Guilt.)

After writing this, I’m ready to eat chocolate. Thank goodness I have four bars of B.T. McElrath chocolate, handcrafted chocolate from Minneapolis. Thank goodness it is fair trade chocolate. I don’t know which bar I like best: Chile Limón, Dark Chocolate or Salty Dog, with a pop of salt crystals in each bite.

Please describe the photo

Chocolate: The Exhibition will be on on display through January 2, 2011, at the  Minnesota History Center, located at 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children. Phone: 651-259-3000.


More reading:

History of Chocolate (Field Museum)

How to Foam Hot Chocolate with a Molinillo

16 thoughts on “Chocolate: The Exhibition

  1. Pingback: Champurrado, drink of the gods « Cooking in Mexico

  2. Pingback: Chocolate, slavery and our collective guilt « Cooking in Mexico

  3. great post, I am glad you are shedding light on this subject, I try to source as many products as I can with the fair trade in Texas they are slowly trickling into our stores, but something is something


  4. Hi Kathleen, I enjoyed your article about chocolate but was shocked to learn about its roots in – and indeed,in some cases, connection to – slavery today. This is akin to the sweatshop labour of our clothing (I recently read an article about clothing also made in sweatshops in the UK, despite our numerous rules and regulations!) The link is provided here in case you wish to publish it :)

    FairTrade is an excellent idea, at least some of the money is going back to the people who make the product.

    Kind regards – – – Stephanie Faith

    1. Stephanie, the link between slavery and chocolate seems to be ignored by many chocolate consumer, or else they don’t know about it. I hope to publicize this awful side to chocolate, and maybe make a small difference in chocolate purchasing decisions. Thank you for your comments.

  5. Hi, Kathleen, again, a winning post, both from a social consciousness POV and from the food aesthetic. Coffee, tobacco, sugar, tea, chocolate, pineapple, mahogany, so many other foods, plants and other natural resources (like oil) have a history rooted in the slave trade because they were considered valuable commodities. I appreciate that you reminded us about this part of chocolate so eloquently. -Norma Hawthorne

    1. Thank you, Norma. You remind me that chocolate is not the only product that exploits human labor. I have so much more to learn about this and hope to share with my readers how to buy responsibly and influence producers.

  6. Kathleen,
    Thank you for the information about chocolate slavery. I think when people share information like this on a grass roots scale, change does come, maybe not quickly, but it changes attitudes and creates change in a more permanent way. Have you ever considered listing your blog on a site called CookEatShare? There are many cooks (some professional chefs such as you) and cooking blogs and you would get a wider showing, I think, and still retain your own blog and autonomy. Your blog has a depth that others don’t have and I think many of the other cooks, amateurs like myself, would follow it. Just a suggestion. I really enjoy your postings.
    Thanks, Linda

    1. Thank you for your comments, Linda. I plan on writing more on the “dark” side of chocolate — its use of child labor and slavery.
      I do not know about CookEatShare, but I will check it out and consider listing with it. Thanks for this suggestion.

  7. Darlene

    Kathleen, Your voyage looks like it is going well. This is a wonderful article! Thanks so much for the indepth story of chocolate. Looking forward to more.

    1. Hi Darlene,
      Actually, I have just returned home, but I’m still trying to catch up on events from my trip. I did not have much computer time and so many other things were happening, like my dad’s 90th. birthday. It isn’t easy to be travelling and blogging at the same time.

  8. Kathleen,
    I always enjoy your posts, but this one in definitely my favorite one. So exquisitely written. Coincidentally a few days ago I received my order from MexGrocer, which included a “chocolate stirrer”. As soon as get the slightest cool wind to justify it, I will be making a big pot of the silky concoction.

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